In a world where Siri can book you a restaurant and Google Now can tell you when you should head for the gate at the airport it can feel like the AI future that many sci-fi fantasies envisioned is already here. Indeed to some extent it is, many aspects of our lives are now farmed out to clouds of servers that make decisions for us, but those machines still lack a fundamental understanding of, well, anything. They’re what are called expert systems, algorithms trained on data to make decisions in a narrow problem space. The AI future that we’re heading towards is going to be far more than that, one where those systems actually understand data and can make far better decisions based on that. One of the first steps to this is IBM’s Watson and it’s creators have done something amazing with it.
Whilst currently only open to partner developers IBM has created an API for Watson, allowing you to pose it a question and receive an answer. There’s not a lot of information around what data sets it currently understands (the example is in the form of a Jeopardy! question) but their solution documents reference a Watson Content Store which, presumably, has several pre-canned training sets to get companies started with developing solutions. Indeed some of the applications that IBM’s partner agencies have already developed suggest that Watson is quite capable of digesting large swaths of information and providing valuable insights in a relatively short timeframe.
I’m sure many of my IT savvy readers are seeing the parallels between Watson and a lot of the marketing material that surrounds anything with the buzzword “Big Data”. Indeed much of the concepts of operation are similar: take big chunks of data, throw them into a system and then hope that something comes out the other end. However Watson’s API suggests something that’s far more accessible, dealing in native human language and providing evidence to back up the answers it gives you. Compare this to Big Data tools, which often require you to either learn a certain type of language or create convoluted reports, and I think Watson has the ability to find widespread use while Big Data keeps its buzzword status.
For me the big applications for something like this come for places where curating domain specific knowledge is a long, time consuming task. Medicine and law both spring to mind as there’s reams of information available to power a Watson based system and those fields could most certainly benefit from having easier access to those vast treasure troves. It’s pretty easy to imagine a lawyer looking for all precedents set against a certain law or a doctor asking for all diseases with a list of symptoms, both queries answered with all the evidence to boot.
Of course it remains to be seen if Watson is up to the task as whilst it’s prowess on Jeopardy! was nothing short of amazing I’ve still yet to see any of its other applications in use. The partner applications do look very interesting, and should hopefully be the proving grounds that Watson needs, but until it starts seeing widespread use all we really have to go on is the result of a single API call. Still I think it has great potential and hopefully it won’t be too long before the wider public can get access to some of Watson’s computing genius.